The show must go on Festivals go digital as organisers improvise for COVID-19


Harare - Southern Africa`s biggest festival, the Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA), failed to run in 2019 for the first time in 18 years.

Organisers promised to be back with a bang in 2020. And then the world caught a flu, economies sneezed and HIFA was again put on ice.

The bloodbath has not only been in Zimbabwe. Across the region, it has been carnage for the big fests.

The Bushfire Festival in Eswatini, Zakifo and AfrikaBurn in South Africa, and Azgo in Mozambique were all cancelled.

Artists and service providers who rely on these big contracts are waiting impatiently for authorities to allow a return to the stage.

But not everyone is waiting.

Others have decided to bite the bullet and have come up with altered versions of the traditional festival.

Festivals have migrated online and this has given them a bit of breathing space as virtual editions are friendlier on the pockets of organisers.

For people like Sam “Cde Fatso” Monro, director of the Shoko Festival in Zimbabwe, COVID-19 could not be allowed to stop the party.

In an interview with The Southern Times Arts, Cde Fatso said, “When lockdown first happened, we looked at the situation and in terms of planning the Shoko Festival, we said let us wait until two months before the festival then we make a final call. We decided to try a virtual festival and make digital work to our advantage.

“We wanted to give people something different, there are a lot of lockdown live gigs that are happening locally and globally where people are trying to compress the live experience into digital.”

The 2020 Shoko Festival – which ran from September 21 to September 27 - had integrated performances from Harare, Bulawayo and Johannesburg. The as acts were seamlessly synced into a single virtual stream with corresponding sets. 

If anything, this made Shoko Festival bigger and more international than it had ever been before COVID-19 changed the way the world works.

Said Cde Fatso, “You cannot replicate a live gig. Our approach was, instead of trying to create a gig online, let us use the benefits digital gives us to create and curate a very unique artistic experience for every event. Every event had a different story, narrative, set and backdrops.”

The digital Shoko Festival has convinced Cde Fatso that things will never be the same again.

“Lockdown has brought a shift to digital. Zimbabweans are now willing to watch live gigs online.  The virtual element of festivals is here to stay; there are many more boundaries we can break in terms of presenting music in new ways. 

“As things may start to ease up, we are going to have physical events again soon, but I think the ideas can co-exist next to each other. We can have physical events happening but I think the idea of virtual programming is here to stay because it presents artistic concepts in such a cool way.”

For others, the health regulations have presented an opportunity to spread awareness of other ways of doing things.

Let Them Festival is an arts fiesta focusing on school children.

Because schools have been closed most of this year, the team behind the festival had to find ways to reach children and keep the show alive.

Let Them Festival director Chido Musasiwa said creative reasoning had to be applied early and they are approaching their scheduled October dates with confidence that the new coronavirus could not stop them.

“It is a schools arts festival that has no participating schools (for this year). Content creation has taken a more educational or informative approach which is one of the elements of our festival,” said Musasiwa. 

The festival will take a seminary approach, where priority is given to teaching basics of crafts instead of the usual performance method.

“We are going to be having interviews with writers. We are also collaborating with Music Crossroads (a Southern African regional music school) and Jason Mphepho`s Little Theatre so that the young people that want to take a certain career path know where they can go,” said Musasiwa. 

She said content is going to be done in two ways through filming some interviews and performances.

There will also be public submissions in festival followers can submit their own work for consideration and eventual airing on the show dates of October 15 and 16.

“We have managed to get some content from Sweden and Nigeria as well as Malawi and Zambia,” Musasiwa added.

While shows such as Shoko and Let Them have found a way to keep breathing, the losses will be felt most by those who provided ancillary services - such as security, décor, catering and promotion.

Whatever the case, the show must go on.





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